Mea Culpa, Nicole Matos: The Confessions of an Essay-Topic Banner
If you don’t teach college-level composition (and, if not, good for you for making wiser career choices), you likely have no skin in the game of the controversy that College of DuPage Associate Professor, Nicole Matos, takes up in her recent article for the Vitae blog: “Why I Allow Writing on Abortion, Marijuana, and The Big Game.”
In brief, the issue is this: When they get to the point of assigning their students the standard-issue college argument essay, some English professors (and I am one of them) ban specific topics.
I, for example, have reached my lifetime limit of reading students’ views on things like abortion, gay marriage, and the death penalty in part because, yes it’s true, there are some viewpoints on these issues that I cannot judge fairly. What is more, as a queer man, I simply don’t feel there is any reason to expose myself to arguments about why my kind is destroying the family or how ISIS has the right idea when it tosses suspected homosexuals off the roofs of tall buildings.
I mean, let’s just face it: A lot of my students should come with trigger warnings.
Plus, I already know what Sean Hannity thinks about these issues, and I don’t need to read any more quotes from him to get the point.
But not all of my nixed topics are banned on ideological grounds. I also refuse to read about whether advertising is (or isn’t) causing an epidemic of anorexia/bulimia among young women, the role that video games do (or don’t) play in provoking real-life violence, or whether fast-food restaurants are (or aren’t) responsible for obesity in America.
First, the only thing such topics encourage students to do is to sally forth onto the verdant fields of information and return with their baskets overladen with other people’s fact-free opinions, which they then strew enthusiastically over their papers like poppy seeds on a bagel. They are not in a position to make a credible argument about such questions because almost no one is.
I keep telling them I don’t care about opinions; I care about what can be demonstrated with logic, reasonable argument, and evidence, but I often have the distinct impression that my microphone isn’t on. (I should report that to the administration. After they fix the air conditioner, which hasn’t worked since I first mentioned it three months ago, I’m sure they’ll get right on it.)
Moreover, what I’ve learned is that the likelihood that first- and second-year composition students will have anything original or interesting or convincing to say about these topics is roughly equal to the probability that one of them is going to turn in a solution to the problem of cold fusion.
A practice such as mine nonetheless leaves Matos aghast: “It never occurred to me to actually make certain perennial college-essay topics verboten,” she says, and I can just picture the adorable look of perplexity on her face as she says it.
Well. It never occurred to me to split infinitives or to abuse adverbs like that, but don’t let me wander off-topic.
At this point, it is fair to disclose that the posts on Vitae often make my skin crawl for the privilege they assume and for their saintly, superteacher air of superiority, but Nicole Matos’s comments on essay topics in composition courses were enough to send me on an emergency visit to the dermatologist.
Taking up my machete to slash away the truisms and sloganeering of Matos’s Stand-and-Deliver college-teaching fantasy, I came to believe that the true motivation for Matos’s didn’t-give-it-much-of-a-think piece was the joy of delivering a massive make-wrong to all those English (and other profs) who “abdicate responsibility for remaining reasonably impartial on all potential subjects.”
Because, yes; I admit it. I am one of those who do the thing that makes Matos weep. I cannot deny, in some cases, that “my views are so entrenched I cannot even assess the logic of another side.” I cannot, for example, assess the logic of saying that queer people should be imprisoned or killed. I cannot assess the logic of insisting that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. I cannot assess the logic of claiming that evolution has yet to be proved.
Sorry, I just can’t. And I don’t want to. And I’m not going to. My classroom isn’t a place where students are free to express either hate speech or stupidity. I’m not interested in helping them find more convincing arguments for ignorance.
They don’t have to agree with my views, but they do have to choose a different topic.
One argument I would really enjoy having, though, is whether or not Prof. Matos is as “reasonably impartial on all potential subjects” as she claims. Frankly, I don’t believe it for a nanosecond, but that level of pious posturing is a tempting balloon. And I just happen to have a handful of hat pins.
Meanwhile, I am delighted for Prof. Matos that she has minds to work with that are capable of taking advantage of her no doubt exemplary ability to explain “where the greatest potential — and most common pitfalls” of “overexposed” essay topics lie. I applaud her ability to get her students to stop using Google and only Google for research, and to move beyond quoting the very first result that agrees with the position they had already formed before they started.
I am agog, when she offers her student writers such enormously beneficial comments as “What can you offer as evidence for that?” or “Are you sure you want to make your argument this absolutely?,” that they respond by rushing to revise and rethink, inspired as they have never before been (rather than merely rolling their eyes and (maybe) making a desultory visit to the Writing Center (which, they rigorously report, “doesn’t help). I mean, golly. It’s no more than one teacher in a million who can come up with incisive questions like those.
Heck, I’m just in awe of her evidently superlative skills at getting her students to read a college-level text and understand more than a third of it.
I don’t know what they’re putting in the water there at College of DuPage, but I sure wish we had us some here.
My days as a teacher, instead, are mostly spent in ways other than carefully crafting young minds. A lot of days, my job is to get anyone (anyone? Bueller?) to offer a minimally thoughtful comment on a reading that she or he has actually completed. A lot of days, I stand in front of a group of 18- to 21-year-olds and explain things like why verbs and subjects have to agree, a topic which, they swear, has never before been broached in their presence.
A lot of days, I meet one-on-one with students while seated on the floor in the hallway, given that I have no desk, no computer, and no office. Also no job security, no chance at tenure, and no contact with colleagues.
So again, brava Professor Matos if you’ve got rooms full of prepared, engaged students to work with and the time and resources to contemplate “the instructor’s role.”
Me, I’ve got kids traumatized by a lifetime of illiteracy education who can’t get their faces out of their phones. I’ve got seventeen emails from my administration asking me to fill out forms. I’ve also got to get to my other part-time job so I can supplement the roughly $10.50 per hour I earn for teaching.
And yes. I do know that all that is my fault. I am just not good enough.